Down defeat a setback for Derry but not a terminal blow
Billed as a promotion shoot-out, there was only frustration for Derry in Pairc Esler on Saturday night.
Derry manager Rory Gallagher had demanded a reaction to the tepid display against Leitrim and, by and large, he got it. Derry were vastly improved, especially in the opening half. There was excellent movement inside, driving support runners from deep and a solid defensive shape when out of possession.
What was missing was a clinical edge.
Referee Padraig Hughes’ speed on the whistle only added to the frustration by denying Ciaran McFaul a golden opportunity but the Oak Leafers still had this game within their grasp. The McFaul chance was the game’s pivotal passage, Hughes’ then further endearing himself to Oak Leaf fans by awarding a bizarre free against Liam McGoldrick for over carrying seconds later. The result? An encouraging first half yielding Derry only a one point interval advantage.
There were no such excuses after the break though. Against an ultra defensive home side, Derry’s shot selection let them down when they needed cool heads.
Pundits tend to concentrate analysis on tactics, formations, statistics but for all our technology, there are no tools for measuring composure or experience.
Gallagher has made reference more than once since being appointed to ‘where Derry are coming from’ and years of being starved of success leave a psychological scar on a county. What Gallagher is probably realising now is just how deep seated that scar is in Derry.
It breeds nerves, among players and supporters, and costs games. Saturday was a perfect example.
There is no magic bullet but continuity of selection, which Derry haven’t had over recent years, is critical. The talent within the county, indeed within the panel, is not in doubt. Nor has it been down the years. Club and school results highlight that fact but years of under achievement don’t disappear overnight. They don’t disappear in four months either. They disappear on the training pitch, in hours of hard work that generate not only game-plans and tactics but also team spirit and squad character.
These Derry players work as hard as any and are well used to frustration at a county level but that frustration should now serve as fuel to prove the doubters wrong.
Sunday’s other results again highlighted how tight Division three will be. There is little between any of the sides bar, maybe, Cork who look further down their evolutionary road than the others.
A quick glance at the table shows Down, Longford and Tipperary two points ahead of Derry but Gallagher’s men still have two of those teams, Tipp and Longford, still to arrive in Celtic Park while Down - like Derry - are still searching for any semblance of consistency.
So far from being a terminal blow, Saturday’s game remains only a setback. The promotion picture has become more difficult but not impossible.
And there were positives amid the Pairc Esler disappointment. Shane McGuigan once more showed he is the forward to take build an attacking unit around with seven point haul and he will get better the sharper he becomes.
The return of Padraig Cassidy brings an added dimension, an incisiveness to Derry’s play, and Shea Downey is looking more and more assured in a senior jersey.
The Derry shape was good and plenty of openings were created but coming out on the wrong wide of those gilt edged opportunities and decisions seemed to sow seeds of doubt and that’s an area Derry must improve on.
When home midfielder Conor Poland was marched to the ‘sin bin’ as the match entered its final 10 minutes, that should have been the cue for a strong finish from the visitors. Instead the game descended into a carbon copy of the Leitrim fixture. Derry appeared weighed down by the weight of expectancy instead of emboldened by the opportunity.
With Down pulling everyone back and setting up to counter, Derry’s nerves got the better of them and they wasted decent openings, falling into similar traps to the ones which exposed them against Leitrim. Liam McGoldrick for example, who had previously been patient in possession and was a constant threat with his runs from deep, twice rushed shots while others gifted ball back to the home team.
That composure can only be gained over time by confidence - confidence in the system and in the players around you and for that we’re back to continuity.
Even with the added importance granted Division Two and Three due to next season’s two tier Championship, it’s worth remembering this is only the start of Gallagher’s Derry. There’s still time in this league and there’s plenty for manager to imprint his vision on the squad.